OPINION: Why protestors were the key speakers at this year's WEF on Africa

During the 2019 World Economic Forum on Africa, amid an outpouring of grief for several women lost to brutal attacks in recent weeks, thousands of protestors descended on Cape Town's CBD to demand that something be done about gender-based violence.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was obliged to skip the session he was scheduled to address on Thursday to speak to demonstrators.

While Africa's movers and shakers were looking at the continent's economic future through the lens of the fourth industrial revolution, its people had gone off script and demanded to be heard.

In a way, this was fitting. As burning economic issues go, gender-based violence is pretty high on the list.

And in fairness to the protestors, the forum was also intended to address inclusion and growth, as WEF Africa head Elsie Kanza noted.

According to the UN, the cost of violence against women could amount to 2% of global gross domestic product (GDP) - the size of Canada's economy. In 2019, 2% of the global GDP amounted to about $1.7trn.

In South African terms, a local study by Sonke Gender Justice and KPMG put the cost of gender-based violence at between 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP per year, or up to R40bn. Between 2014 and 2016, the estimated cost went up to as much as R42bn annually, according to UN Women country director Anne Githuku-Shongwe.

This includes costs in reproductive healthcare, loss of earnings due to death, absenteeism and lost productivity, job loss, lost productivity of the abuser due to incarceration, and loss of tax revenues due to death and incarceration.

In perspective, R42bn is 1.4 times what was allocated to schools and schooling infrastructure in the 2019 budget. It's enough to put over 1.1 million primary school children through school for a year, if their school fees are around R37 000. 

It's 16 times the allocation for food safety (R2.6bn) – and 20 times the allocation for NHI (R2.1bn) – in the 2019 Appropriations Act.

It could pay for state pensions or disability grants for over 23 million people or build around 75 hospitals.

South Africa – a country whose economy is limping at best – is spending money it desperately needs to take care of its sick and elderly or to educate its children, on the fallout from brutalising women instead.

There's something very wrong with this picture.

A key part of the solution is economic

Research by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa drew a link between gender-based violence and economic empowerment. Economically disempowered women are more vulnerable to gender-based violence, Osisa found; it also echoed the above – that GBV hampers economic development.

Author Jacqui True noted that according to the team's research, "some of the best-evaluated outcomes" in reducing the future exposure of women to violence lay in empowering them economically: giving them greater autonomy in securing livelihoods, including through formal employment, entrepreneurship or income-generating arrangements within households.

In South Africa, this needs work. Women are harder hit by unemployment, and when they do work, they are often paid less.

Complicating matters is the fact that a separate study found in some instances, where certain women did achieve some economic empowerment, they were targeted when their partners experienced their growth as a threat.

The key, True noted, is to tackle attitudes as well. She called for investment in policies that would promote both social and economic equality between genders "for the prevention of violence as well as for spurring economic recovery".

Interventions

Outside of SA, the rest of Africa has proportionally higher levels of gender-based violence than the rest of the world. AUDA-NEPAD (then the New Partnership for Africa's Development), has funded 14 projects to tackle this. Explaining why, it cites World Health Organisation statistics: compared to 35% of women worldwide who had experienced either physical or sexual violence worldwide, 45.6% of women aged 15 and older in Africa had experienced the same.

Meanwhile the World Bank, recognising the staggering cost of GBV on low- and middle- income countries in particular, supports some $250m in development projects aimed at addressing the problem.

So far, it appears this hasn't been enough.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised harsher sentences for perpetrators of GBV, a crackdown on bail and parole, a review of current laws and the listing of perpetrators on the National Registry of Offenders. He's also promised faster responses for victims.

Last month saw the promise of "budget support and planning for interventions" addressing GBV. And the WEF on Africa saw the establishment of a fund to support South Africa's fight against gender-based violence, which would include a free emergency response system.

All of which is commendable and necessary. But it's also incomplete. South Africa's prisons are already overcrowded and our economy is groaning. Police stations sometimes lack evidence kits and police themselves may overwhelmed with heavy case loads or lack training to deal with GBV. Furthermore, as many advocacy groups have noted, we lack adequate tracking and monitoring for gender-based violence. It's all well and good to promise a crackdown, but our justice system is barely coping as it is. 

Nairobi, for example, saw a dramatic reduction in sexual assaults after the introduction of several educational programmes aimed at school learners to teach them about self-defence and consent. There are many organisations in South Africa trying to do similar work, but they need more support. 

Unless South Africa makes substantial investments in the prevention of gender-based violence at multiple levels, the promise of more punitive measures will be a band-aid on a broken leg - and the human and economic costs will keep piling up.

* Marelise van der Merwe is sub-editor at Fin24. Views expressed are her own. 

** The figures used in this article are rounded off for clarity. Links to original sources have been provided wherever possible.